WASHINGTON (AP) — The deadly New York truck attack prompted President Donald Trump to go looking for someone to blame beyond the man accused of doing it. He settled, at least for a time, on Sen. Chuck Schumer.
He said the assailant legally immigrated to the U.S. thanks to a visa lottery program he labeled "a Chuck Schumer beauty." The New York lawmaker indeed supported the program but Trump could have just as convincingly named it after Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch or the many other Republican senators who also supported it when it became law under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush.
A look at Trump's rhetoric Wednesday:
— "The terrorist came into our country through what is called the 'Diversity Visa Lottery Program,' a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based."
—'''Senator Chuck Schumer helping to import Europes problems' said Col. Tony Shaffer. We will stop this craziness! @foxandfriends"
Schumer, then in the House, now a senator, joined in bipartisan support for a program begun in 1990, when legal immigration was less contentious.
He also proposed eliminating it four years ago, Republican lawmakers said in an unusual defense of the Democratic leader.
The Homeland Security Department confirmed after the tweets that the accused assailant immigrated under the diversity lottery program. He came to the United States in 2010.
The program is for people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. It provides up to 50,000 visas annually by lottery. Applicants must have a high school diploma or meet work experience requirements. The program was created as part of a bipartisan immigration bill signed into law by Bush in 1990.
Schumer indeed proposed a program for "diversity immigrants" that year.
But Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Schumer was among a group of eight Republican and Democratic senators who proposed eliminating the program four years ago as part of a broader bipartisan bill to overhaul U.S. immigration laws.
Flake, one of the eight, said: "I know. I was there."
Another of the eight, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, similarly defended Schumer, saying he "supported legislation to do away with the lottery system." Like Flake, Graham said "I was there. I know." He said the bill died in the House in face of opposition from Republicans.
Hours after the president's tweets about Schumer's supposed culpability, the White House backed down in a fashion. Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the president "has not blamed Senator Schumer and doesn't feel that the senator is responsible for the attack."
Trump's reference to Europe's problems belies the fact that Uzbekistan is in Asia, not Europe. However, the State Department categorizes Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics under Europe in its lottery program.
TRUMP at a Cabinet meeting: "Diversity lottery. Sounds nice. It's not nice. It's not good. It hasn't been good. We've been against it. So we want to immediately work with Congress on the Diversity Lottery Program, on terminating it, getting rid of it."
THE FACTS: He's been against it, but Republicans weren't at the start.
Back in 1990, after a broader immigration bill containing the visa program passed the House, the legislation sailed through the Senate on an 89-8 vote.
Several Republicans who are still in the Senate backed the measure. Among them: McConnell, Grassley and Hatch.
The lottery is extended to citizens of most countries, except about 20. Among the excluded countries are many that already have high rates of emigration to the U.S., such as Mexico, Canada and India.
In the most recent figures, the State Department selected more than 125,000 people in 2015 for the lottery program, accepting the first 50,000 who applied for visas. Among them, citizens of Cameroon, Liberia, Congo, Iran and Nepal led the list, with about 5,000 visa slots each. Citizens of Uzbekistan also figured prominently in the lottery, with 4,368 selected.
Those numbers don't necessarily reflect who actually came because the number was capped at the first 50,000 who applied for visas after winning the lottery.
Chances of winning one of the 50,000 visas are slim. In 2012, for example, nearly 15 million people applied for themselves and family members.
TRUMP tweet on merit-based immigration:
—"We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter)."
THE FACTS: The president has taken steps to push for a merit-based immigration system but many of those efforts are still under development.
In August, Trump embraced legislation that would dramatically reduce legal immigration and shift the nation toward a system that prioritizes merit and skills over family ties.
The president promoted the bill, which would eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, at a White House event with Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia. But the legislation has yet to gain any significant traction and is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The White House has signaled that it may seek some of these changes in coming negotiations with Democrats over a legislative solution that would extend protections first granted under former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Trump is phasing out DACA, but has given Congress time to act before recipients' work permits begin to expire.
A set of immigration principles laid out by the administration last month included calls for a "merit-based" immigration system that would end so-called "chain migration" by limiting family-based green cards to include spouses and minor children. But it remains unclear if Trump will insist on these changes in the DACA talks.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.
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